Scroll DownScroll

Rishi Sunak has launched a weapon of maths distraction

Posted: 11th September 2023

Amidst the NHS winter crisis, uncertainty over the cost of living, rising inflation and recession all overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, the Prime Minister recently stepped out to make a statement.

A vision, if you will, for a brighter and more prosperous future. A solution grounded in long-term, sustainable thinking rather than the sticking plaster politics of which his opponent has accused him. That solution? Compulsory maths to the age of 18. Something which, Mr Sunak declares, is personal to him.

News outlets immediately did as they were expected and withdrew attention from my opening list in order to focus on the big news of the day: the possibility of more compulsory but non-examined maths at some undisclosed point in the future.

More numeracy? Who can argue with that? And like the Poundshop commentator I am, my family called upon me via our Whatsapp group, to comment and to unpack. I was happy to oblige: it won’t happen, it is a distraction and we would all do well to completely ignore it and focus on proper news. There you go!

Is it unfair of me to brand this announcement nothing more than a weapon of maths distraction? Well, perhaps, but ultimately it does not fit into any coherent or long-term education strategy. It is neither funded, resourced nor properly explained and has been delivered without any research-based explanation of its value or impact. I think we can ignore it.

But of course, we can’t, because immediately it raises plenty of questions which are perfectly healthy for the national discourse: what about the arts and humanities? What about literacy? Who can argue that more numeracy is in and of itself a bad thing? Great – let’s have those conversations and let’s do so away from the personal biases or whims of individual politicians and within the sphere of proper discussion over education policy and strategy.

At the heart of all of this is the discussion over the breadth of curriculum. The model, broadly unchanged for decades, is that of a “broad and balanced” diet of subjects up to the age of 14 when the curriculum becomes narrowed to include sciences (in some form), maths and English but where other subject areas (languages, humanities, creative subjects) are chosen by the individual. Then, at 16, if the traditional academic route suits the individual, further specialism at an Advanced Level is reflected in the selection of three or four subjects.

Students and parents require proper advice and guidance at the age of 14 and 16 when it comes to selecting and deselecting subjects. It is a minefield which must place the individual student at the centre. It is not helped by influential politicians appearing to proclaim that one subject area has more value than others.

My own advice, for what it is worth, remains broadly unchanged for many years and I rarely engage with any serious educator who doesn’t share the same view in some form or another: choose the subjects you enjoy and which you are good at.

There you go; a strategy which is pupil-centred and designed to project individuals towards pathways where they can excel. I do, for what it’s worth, believe that studying a second language to 16 alongside the arts and humanities is absolutely vital for the development of broad-minded, culturally literate thinking people and I would, if pushed, advocate for broadening the “core” subjects at GCSE to include elements of these. The discussion, however, is that of post-16 studies and when is it right to specialise.

Commentators have rightly pointed out that some other European countries do have compulsory post-16 mathematics as part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) — a popular and excellent post-16 qualification which thrives in many UK schools.

Some remain of the opinion that the breadth offered by the IB, wonderful though it is, cannot match the depth offered by traditional A-levels. An A-level candidate may study fewer subjects but he or she will, it is argued, have studied them in much greater depth. There are also vocational qualifications — outstanding options for post-16 study where individuals can study in appropriate depth and gain relevant understanding and experience in order to excel in their chosen pathways.

None of these options are better than the other. No A-level subject is better or of higher value than any other. There is the right pathway and the correct diet of subjects for every individual student. Had Alun Wyn Jones been forced into becoming a jockey, I doubt the world’s most capped rugby player would have enjoyed the sporting success that has enriched a nation; and so it is with post-16 studies.

The pathway (IB, A-level or vocational) and the specific diet within that pathway must reflect the passion and talent of the individual. A culture which celebrates the diversity of talent in students and presents opportunities for each of them to thrive without feeling they are taking ‘lesser’ subjects is one which the Prime Minister would do well to nurture. That is one vague policy announcement which would add up.


Written by Tom Arrand, Principal – Cardiff Sixth Form College

Published by Schools Management Plus, 6th January 2023

Categories: Articles